A lot of friends have made fun of me for my DNF-on-principle policy when it comes to romance and happily ever afters, by which I mean my tendency to refuse to finish a book when I feel a happily ever after (HEA) is undeserved. Now, I’m not the HEA addict that Marian is—she once told me that if she’s told there’s no chance for an HEA, sometimes she’ll just refuse to read a book—but I am a bit of a judgmental reader. I’m harsh in my expectations of the characters I read about. And I always, always want them to work toward that HEA. Otherwise, I find myself unsatisfied when they get it.
In fact, this is such an issue with me that I will sometimes purposefully DNF (did/do not finish) a book a chapter or two from the ending because I feel that the characters simply do not deserve to get that happily ever after and I refuse to bear witness to it by reading those final chapters. Yes, it’s something my co-bloggers have laughed at me for, but I feel that strongly and I will get on a soapbox and rant about it.
But how exactly does a character earn that HEA, in my opinion? The long and short of it is, they have to fight for it.
Now, when you’re dealing with romantic suspense or paranormal romance, this usually isn’t a problem because the characters often have to risk life and limb, and if you’re going to run the risk of dying to prove your love, then I usually figure you get a pass on the HEA.
I encounter the problem of undeserved HEAs the most when it comes to contemporary romance (and having been burned so many times, I guess this is why, of the three Will Read for Feels bloggers, I read the fewest books in this genre). This happens when a character, having identified problems that need to be surmounted, makes token attempts to work on them and gets rewarded for an HEA either prematurely or undeservedly.
I won’t name titles here. But consider this scenario: the main character and the love interest have a fight, and it’s because the main character is overly clingy or jealous or maybe he or she keeps secrets; some stewing follows, and then the main character apologizes, and an HEA ensues. My reaction: Wait, what? That’s the end? Why?
Worse: The big fight or painful reveal happens, and then the characters spend some time apart. Then they see each other again after that time apart. And they realize they want to be with each other no matter what, and that makes everything okay. And they live happily ever after. My reaction: You have got to be kidding me. So “I love you” makes any sin forgivable?
See, one of the things I’ve learned from having been with the same guy for over a decade (and being mostly happily married for 7 years now) is that apologies don’t mean squat when you don’t add an effort to make amends to it. And, no, that’s not the same thing, either in real life or, I believe, in romance.
Does the character make the effort to go into therapy for those jealousy issues? Does the character who’s been lying or keeping secrets try to be more open and honest in the future? What things do the characters do to prove that they really are sorry, and more than that, willing to exert the effort to make the relationship work? Do they try to talk about their values and insecurities and wants and needs to try to get to a point where the relationship is healthy and has more than a snowdrop’s chance in hell of succeeding?
(I guess you can see that soapbox under my feet now.)
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I expect too much of romance. And that I shouldn’t expect romance novels to echo real life like that. The truth is, I understand perfectly that it’s fiction. But I also know that the fiction we read has the power to change the way we think. And I want my fiction, romantic or otherwise, to come with a sense of responsibility with regard to how it affects its readers.
I’m not saying it needs to be lofty in its themes. I’m saying that there are fundamental ideals that fiction should be encouraged. In romance, these ideals are about love and relationships and, often, sex. And an irresponsible writer can do a world of damage to impressionable readers without realizing it—I don’t care to count the number of books that have left me outraged because the heroines forgave their heroes morally and legally reprehensible acts (like rape) in the name of love. So, yes, I’ll DNF a book that shares a message I just down to my bones do not agree with.
I know that my reaction is a little militant. But I feel that when you compromise on the little things, sometimes that leaves you more open to compromising on the big things, and I worry about the wide-reaching problems in real life the big problems in romantic fiction can cause. So I always think it’s a good idea to ask yourself, “what does the HEA indicate is the moral of this story?” Because it may not be as obvious as the kind you’d find in an Aesop’s fable, but it’s going to be there in some form or other. And once you’ve identified it, you’ll next have to decide whether that’s a message you’re down with supporting.
So, please, if there are any romance writers out there who might happen upon this blog and read this, can you please make sure the following are truths your stories convey?
- Rape and abuse is never okay, and it’s definitely never romantic.
- A woman’s body is her own.
- You’ll only fully love another person when you love yourself.
- A relationship should be a partnership between equals.
- Real relationships take work.
- Attraction may be involuntary, but love is a choice.
I’m sure there will be many more things that need to be added to this list. And I won’t be surprised if there are things that people disagree with. But this is how I feel and how I think—and if you’re an author who writes with a philosophy contrary to mine, I’m not going to say you should not be published as that’s not my call to make, but I reserve my right to put your book away and say, “This book is not for me, and it isn’t something I’d recommend to anyone.”